On Burnout & Sabbatical

This is not another written piece about how you and I, as individuals, can take personal action to avoid and combat burnout. While this post does address that, my primary objective is to question why’s burnout happening so much in the first place? What’s causing it on all rungs of employment in different industries? Where’s the preventing burnout dialogue within a workplace that addresses the actual workplace and not putting the sole responsibility on the individual?

I don’t have answers to these questions and I am realistic that changing the socioeconomic forces that cause burnout is a constant struggle. Because of this, personal and collective rest and joy are necessary to resist and refute said forces. But longer periods of rest, like a sabbatical or periods of chosen unemployment, are only available to those with housing, food, water, and most importantly, monetary stability and access to some degree. Regardless, I need to write about burnout and sabbatical to process and reflect on it as well as seek and create more emotionally and mentally supportive environments for myself and others.

May is mental health awareness month. Like with all topics given designated days and months in the following format “insert topic here] Day/Month,” we should be integrating mental health conversation and practices into our lifestyles. Also, who designates these days? The awareness and representation are important, but in the case of access to resources, it’s only surface level when said access and resources remain largely unattainable and inequitable.

Over the last year, I’ve grown weary to write or share things based on these topical, contrived timed events. These topical events can either give individuals, groups, and companies a way to signal their values towards these topics during their designated day or month (e.g., companies changing their logos to a rainbow equivalent for pride, companies having posted their #BlackLivesMatter or #StopAAPI hate campaigns) without any fundamental change or accountability that still allows these institutions to uphold antithetical practices to their self-proclaimed values (e.g., leaders in said companies maintaining predominantly white, male, and or wealthy makeup of leadership, a workplace culture that discourages sociopolitical discourse, not paying marginalized identities for doing additional diversity, equity, and inclusion labor in the workplace, the list can and does go on).

It’s like when a company says work-life balance is an important cultural value to them but you still regularly get messages at all hours from your manager and or colleagues, or you’re getting said messages while they’re supposed to be on vacation.

I am also wary of representation like “Girlboss feminism” that doesn’t fundamentally shift or change built-in inequity. In general, no doubt it’s a messy, non-linear road to change on this scale. In terms of burnout, a big part of me believes that getting rid of it is not possible within our prevailing framework, as long as our time, energy, bodies, and production are all necessitated towards profit.

I digress because even though I thought I wasn’t going to publicly share this post, I am! The conversations that occur during certain “[insert topic here] Day/Month” and notable dates are important. My point remains that these conversations are only the start to tangible, transformative change that can and should be integrated into one’s life and thus co-created world.

Narrowing further to my personal experience, I was debating sharing a series of screenshots from my notes app that shows where I was at mental health-wise last year. I won’t be, but the content warning I had typed out is all you need to know to get the point: thoughts of death and self-harm, depression, anxiety.

At the time I wrote these notes, I was in therapy (and still am), safely housed and fed, making use of PTO, trying to adjust to the very specific remote situation that emerged because of the pandemic. But I was immensely depressed. Probably the thickest depression I have ever been in. None of my interests felt replenishing let alone fun if I could muster myself to do them, just in attempts to remain some semblance of a subsisting baseline.

The notes I was writing were about how death felt like the ultimate peace, how I just wanted to go peacefully in my sleep so I wouldn’t have to wake up the next morning to work. The number of times I either woke up and cried or cried throughout my workday. The number of days I overslept 10 plus hours. The number of days I only slept 6 or fewer hours after staying up till 2 or 3 in the morning on workdays. I felt like I couldn’t not hold a job, not work in the conventional sense. I then entered a cycle of feeling guilty for feeling these things since “it could be so much worse.” While that fact stands, it did not invalidate my own struggles.

All of my energy was going into just making it to the next moment. I am grateful for the pockets of joy I experienced and was supported by via my family and friends, in a difficult year to begin with, let alone when I wasn’t yet able to specifically describe or see what I was experiencing. In the workplace it didn’t exactly help that nothing seemed to stop, business mostly unaffected aside from an initial dip in spring 2020. I would get off-hour emails and messages from my team. My expectations were not clearly set for me and when I tried to advocate for myself, I kept running into more walls. The workplace environment was such that I wasn’t supposed to be talking about what was happening outside the business’ doors. This breaches another topic, for another time, of corporate workplace culture and what types of identities and personal expressions are valued and encouraged within those spaces.

Was my own burnout accelerated by the pandemic and all the social, cultural, and climate reckonings that had been bubbling and burst in 2020? And the general sense that I was supposed to just keep my head down and work even though work was an immense source of psychological stress as well? You bet. Would I have burned out otherwise had this not been the situation? I believe so, but that’s not the reality at hand.

I used to think that long working hours, zero work-life balance or boundaries, and a very explicitly toxic, abusive workplace were the exclusive contributing factors to burnout. I’d seen iterations of this in broader social circles, but also more closely in friends and family, or rather, seen it through them via my lack of seeing them as they were busy at and with work.

What I did learn through many late-night Google searches hoping to quell deepening existentialism and personal experience, is that burnout is not necessarily always about poor boundaries and excessive work. It is also about a lack of resources and or expectations, being poorly managed or supported, feeling like your target is always moving.

Written digital media on burnout that puts the responsibility on the individual to prevent or “fix it” in their experience is part of the larger problem. Only more recently and in reckoning with the multitudes of ways late-stage capitalism is unsustainable has the conversation come into scope that burnout is a symptom of the world we’ve created.

This logically explains why burnout happens at any type of job, any level, any industry. There isn’t currently a labor shortage as the endless train of the economy revs up again, but a shortage of jobs and policies that provide living wages. Activists face burnout both from showing up to do the work as well as in the emotional labor of recounting or educating on these issues. At the beginning of this recently published New Yorker article on burnout, the author cites Moses saying to God, “I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me.” If I had to lead a movement all on my own, I’d be saying the same to God, too.

It’s important to note that we can experience burnout from work we are passionate about and enjoy doing. It can be from unpaid work or labor (e.g., daily/weekly domestic work within a household, emotional labor societally put onto feminine gender, non-binary, and BIPOC identities). The constant need to produce, to always be doing something, to have that production and productivity associated with our inherent value as people, is just not sustainable for any one person, and arguably a company or business itself! The overarching culture of glamorizing the grind, overworking, of never taking breaks, is not sustainable. There’s finally conversation and reckoning happening with that. I understand and respect the hustle, commitment to craft, practices, and process, the uniqueness and nuance of every individual’s situation, the fact that we have to get the bread or get dead. But literally never ceasing from it has its own serious consequences.

This is where rest as resistance is necessary.

When I first knew I was going to be let go from my job, months before I was actually let go, the haze of my depression started to lift. It was only at this point that I could begin to see how depleted I had been. The analogy I’ve used to describe it is being in a romantic relationship you can’t put your finger on what’s not working, but know isn’t working and you’re going to break up with them, but then they break up with you. And you think, woah, wait, I’m supposed to break up with you!

In the 3 months before my last day, I started earnestly planning for a sabbatical. A break after this job before my next one, spending time regaining myself. The planning mostly covered what budget I’d set for expense and benefits and of course, what I wanted to do during this time. There are many iterations of this list. Here’s an early version (note the time, at which I should’ve been asleep since it was a weekday):

The pandemic was at its worst in LA county at the time of writing this note, so it felt weird to write about where I wanted to travel, even locally by car. Knowing that my sabbatical would start in the spring and hinge upon vaccines as well as turning a corner in the pandemic (in LA and the U.S. at least), I allowed myself to list some outdoor-related activities and travel.

In early 2021, there were still many hard, demoralizing days at work until I was officially unemployed. The crying was happening a bit less and transforming into an emotion I don’t like to sit with, anger. I metabolized this to my best ability (I recommend this book, as recommended to me by a writing teacher). The anger kind of released me, fueled me to say to myself “I’m going to do well for me,” to get energizing exercise in before my workday, and to give myself the mental and emotional space I deserve, since I was definitely not going to get it in my workspace. I began realizing I had time to prepare for a clean slate. I began regaining my agency to change and redirect my own life.

I had relocated to live with family at the beginning of the pandemic so I had been saving money. I even paid off my remaining debt in 2020. A huge personal win in the landscape of 2020. My reality was that I did not have to find work right away once I was let go. It felt strange and weird to allow myself to think that, then begin planning for it, the privilege and access I have to do that. It’s limited, but still enough for me personally to take a multi-month break.

So that’s where I’m writing to you from, my sabbatical. I’m not going to share or talk more specifically about what I am doing with this sabbatical since I’m in the midst of it currently. I will say that as I’ve shared my sabbatical & rest plan with family, friends, and new people alike, I’ve been met with echoes of support and wishing they could do the same, since what I’ve gathered is that everyone is SO DAMN TIRED. So if you’re reading this, I leave you with a call to use your vacation time, spend quality time with people you love, to take a rest, and to just be however you can.

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.

Audre Lorde in “A Burst of Light: Living With Cancer

P.S. If you can take a long term break and are thinking about it (or like an actual sabbatical where you’re still employed and getting paid), I recommend these videos by Evelyn from the Internets and their comment sections where much vulnerability, experiences, and wisdom is shared.